Reviews

“Grimus” – Salman Rushdie

Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. London: Vintage, 1996.

grimusPublished in 1975, Salman Rushdie’s debut novel was written specifically for the Victor Gollancz Prize for Science Fiction, but Rushdie’s publishers later stepped back from marketing it for that genre, apparently considering it a mistake. Grimus tells the story of Flapping Eagle, a Native American outcast who becomes immortal after drinking some magical liquor. An inability to ‘fit in’ with a mortal world leads Flapping Eagle to attempt suicide, after which he falls through the Mediterranean Sea into another world. This world is inhabited by other potion-drinking immortals, and is presided over by the strange and powerful Grimus – a doppelganger of Flapping Eagle. The book draws heavily on mythological and religious sources, especially Sufi mysticism and mythology, but it is essentially a SF story of other selves in other dimensions, albeit a more literary story than that genre tends to go for.

Much of the critical failure of Grimus was blamed on Rushdie’s perceived inability to make a cohesive whole out of a mixture of genre and style (which might explain his publisher’s reticence about Grimus’ place within the SF genre). The fractured narrative, which moves between first and third person at lightning speed, is complex, and while fascinating does not have quite the same sure touch as Rushdie’s later works. The tone of Grimus can be uneven, and appears to suffer a little from a lack of authorial direction. For a first novel, however, Grimus is still a major accomplishment, and remains one of my favourite of Rushdie’s books (more so than the to-my-mind over-rated Satanic Verses but nowhere near the genius of Midnight’s Children) although Rushdie himself has no high opinion of it.

As with other genre types, trends in SF come and go but the underlying themes remain the same. Possibly the strongest theme in SF literature and film is conformity – specifically, the need to escape a society where conformity is a measure of acceptance and even utopia. From the celled, monastic individuals of E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops to the rigidly enforced positronic brain patterns of Asimov’s robots to the Storm-troopers of Star Wars and the Borg of Star Trek, the need to escape the confines of conformity is ubiquitous. So when Flapping Eagle shows no such inclination to escape conformity (he is much more inclined to embrace it where-ever he can find it) the ground beneath the reader begins to shake. Consciously or not, we understand what it is we’re supposed to see in SF novels, and it isn’t the protagonist desperate to fit in to a rigidly ordered group.

It is arguably this underlying instability that has resulted in calls of genre confusion within Grimus. Support for this confusion can be seen in the secondary theme of the book: migration. While this is a typical theme in SF literature (humanity travelling to distant suns, and making their home on other planets), it is also a major theme in Salman Rushdie literature. Much of the criticism available on Grimus looks at migration as an extension of Rushdie’s personality: the East Meets West collision of religious, social, and political beliefs and the alienation of the immigrant within the new cultural landscape. But I’m not sure that comparing Rushdie and Flapping Eagle in this way is accurate or helpful. Rushdie’s interviews appear to indicate an individual with a very different outlook on life to Flapping Eagle, despite superficial similarities. Rushdie has a strong predilection for non-conformity: the intellectual responsibility of individuals to move beyond the myths of their culture, to decisively not know their place and to rely on their own understanding over the myths of the past. Passivity to received dogma is not seen as a desirable or responsible intellectual characteristic.

So the fact that Rushdie could be writing an autobiography in metaphor is no indication that he actually did. However, the theme of migration between Islam and the East to the politically and religiously open West is so strong in the rest of his works that it is tempting – and even reasonable – to apply that intention in retrospect when reading Grimus. The problem here is that while Grimus may share theme with the rest of Rushdie’s work, it does not necessarily imply that all the works share genre – and different genres interpret themes differently.

An example of this is Flapping Eagle’s continuing social isolation. This alienation is itself a symptom of Flapping Eagle’s conformity to Grimus’ plans for him – Grimus has engineered much of Flapping Eagle’s life in order to control his destiny.

Do you deny that by selecting you as a Recipient I shaped your life thenceforth? Do you deny that by taking your sister from the Axona I forced your expulsion? Do you deny that by expelling Nicholas Deggle into your continuum I guided you towards Calf Island? Do you deny that allowing you to wander the world for centuries instead of bringing you here I made you the man that you are, chameleon, adaptable, confused? Do you deny that by choosing a man similar in appearance to myself I estimated exactly the effect of such a man on Virgil and on the town K? Do you deny that I lured you here with the Spectre of Bird-Dog? Do you deny that I have steered a course between the infinite potential presents and futures in order to make this meeting possible? (And then, dropping his voice:) Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny? (Rushdie 233)

Thus, Flapping Eagle’s conformity is hidden under a surface of non-conformity as he travels the course that Grimus has set for him, the course of a continually alienated outsider who is always trying to fit in to whatever society he happens to be in at the time. This is a major inversion of the usual SF treatment of this theme – a twist that might not be so unsettling in a non-SF genre.

It seems to me to be plausible that Rushdie, the non-conformist, has unsuccessfully tried to produce his own antithesis in Flapping Eagle, and fails for want of empathy. Flapping Eagle, it must be admitted, is a curiously flat character dumped into a community of the fascinatingly warped and grotesque. The fat, pedantic, and stubbornly reclusive Virgil is an infinitely more attractive and seductive character. That the guide so outshines the guided is an odd narrative choice, but is it deliberate? Or did Rushdie’s sympathy for Virgil, the active individualist, drag the author off the genre track? Is this why Grimus’ seems so muddled at times?

It’s certainly understandable that Rushdie’s sympathy for the more interesting, and more non-conformist – character led him to make the hero’s SF journey from conformity to non-conformity so unbalanced.

It is inescapably true that Flapping Eagle is mostly led around by the nose, and it’s hard to have much liking for him. Left to shift for himself, he tends to wallow and drift and take the path of least resistance until forced to do otherwise. In conformity-themed SF, this is where the protagonist normally starts his journey before he or she learns how to escape the stifling nature of their community-based conformity. In essence, this type of SF novel shows the journey of a person learning the value of non-conformity. But Flapping Eagle never achieves the growth suggested by his quest or its underlying theme. Towards the end of Grimus, when he confronts his doppelganger at Grimushome, he appears to show a smidgeon of initiative. Success!But it turns out, however, that his entire journey has been orchestrated by Grimus – Flapping Eagle has had no choices in the matter, and even his victory over Grimus is at the latter’s behest. When, only one page from the end of the novel, Flapping Eagle finally does something Grimus does not want, it is almost too unexpected to the reader as well. It is unexpected because the change is too sudden for the character. There has been little gradual awakening to his own deliberate intellectual and moral non-conformity; it simply comes regardless. The one individual in the novel who has the intellectual and moral understanding of his own relationship with conformity and lack thereof is Virgil – but Grimus merely tells the end of Virgil’s story, not the whole of it.

I’d rather have read a history of Virgil, with Flapping Eagle on the periphery – perhaps coming in at the end, where Virgil could help him perform his function of getting rid of the Stone Rose. It is Virgil who should have been the centre of a SF novel, not Flapping Eagle. It is Virgil who would have had the more convincing hero’s journey. It is Virgil who engages Rushdie’s sympathies so much that the author, probably unconsciously, pushes to one side the thematic development of Flapping Eagle in favour of the character who most suits the SF genre.

Flapping Eagle spends most of his time wishing unashamedly for conformity, and I end up wanting him to go away as much as any of the communities that exclude him. As a protagonist in a novel themed around a more realistic experience of social migration and integration, as many of Rushdie’s protagonists are, he would likely be a more successful character. However, as a SF lead his level of conformity, and his too-quick solution of it, makes him a failure – and the success of Grimus hangs on the journey of Flapping Eagle. That journey has all the hallmarks and obstacles of the SF journey towards non-conformity. Yet in its solution to the problem of conformity, and in its protagonist, Grimus does not conform to the expectations of readers well-versed in SF perceptions. That is what makes the novel so muddled within genre, and is arguably the root cause of its critical failure. Even those who are not dedicated SF readers cannot help but come to the conclusion that there is something “off” about its treatment of conformity.

There’s some irony in that.

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“The Chrysalids” – John Wyndham

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. London: Penguin Books.

First published 1955.

chrysalidsJohn Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one of the seminal books of my childhood. I first read it at about 10, and to this day I still read it every couple of months. There are passages I could probably recite from memory. What fascinated me about this book was partly the setting, and how comfortably it settled with New Zealand’s iconic anti-nuclear policy – in The Chrysalids, the mutated survivors of nuclear war headed towards New Zealand as a relatively pristine haven from the resulting environmental and social catastrophe.

It also introduced me to the idea of mutation – both biological and cultural. I didn’t recognise it in so many words when I first read the book (at ten years old, genetic mutation and social upheaval as such were still far in my mental future) but the idea that one sudden event could prompt an explosion within the human body, and the beginnings of a new type of human being… that was fascinating. What was even more fascinating was the way that this new type of human was treated – hunted down by the genetically pure, sterilised, and thrust out into the wilderness. The really creepy thing was that people would suddenly turn on their neighbours. We see this in the real world all the time – the Rwandan genocide is a particularly brutal example of a flash-point being reached, where neighbours are suddenly dehumanised due to social and cultural expectations of “us” and “other”.

If anything, The Chrysalids represented possibility, and that possibility continues to define the book for me: the idea of sudden and drastic genetic change – how it may have occurred in the past, how we have the capability to bring it about today, why we retain that ability, knowing what it can do… and how we would cope with any possible results.

Being raised in a non-religious family, The Chrysalids was my first real experience of the depths to which religion could be twisted to justify the inexplicable in order to make it understandable. How many could stand up against the need to find meaning after nuclear catastrophe, when scientific knowledge is lost and religion appears to provide a means of protection and escape – if only one can conform enough? This fear of difference and nonconformity – biological and intellectual – and the wholesale rooting out of these perceived spiritual imperfections is chilling. The child David’s dream about his father sacrificing his six-toed friend, Sophie, as he sacrificed a mutant calf is chilling, not just for the cruelty but for the indifference.

We all stood looking at her, and waiting. Presently she started to run from one person to another, imploring them to help her, but none of them moved, and none of their faces had any expression. My father started to walk towards her, the knife shining in his hand. Sophie grew frantic; she flitted from one unmoving person to another, tears running down her face …. He raised his other hand high, and as he swept it down the knife flashed in the light of the rising sun, just as it had flashed when he cut the calf’s throat… (28)

As horrible as this childish dream is, however, if pales to the later realisation of Sophie’s life as an adult – mutilated, sterilised, and thrust out into the radioactive Fringes as a child, as an adult still living there as the lover of a mutated spider-man who would throw her over in an instant for a woman who could give him children. (It appears that only the women were sterilised – male Blasphemies escaped that fate in one of Wyndham’s rare slips.) In her instinctive emotional understanding and her knowledge of her own limitations Sophie despairs: wisdom banished to the wilderness.

Wyndham is careful enough to emphasise the horror of this war-induced dystopia in two different ways. He refuses to make the dystopian community of Waknuk and its surrounds a homogenous set of people. David is exposed to the worst of it, as his father Joseph is a true and unrelenting bigot who is happy to crush his own family in the name of faith. Indirectly, this exposure also allows David to find the humanity in others – in his Aunt Harriet (who drowns her mutated infant and herself to escape having to give up her baby) he sees the possibility of an adult figure prioritising love over religion and its mandated conformity. As he ages, he sees more individuals who think this way, but they are always individuals – there is never the possibility of a community of the dispossessed. Purity of species overrides purity of heart, but even those entrusted with preserving the former can be decent enough to preserve some of the latter. The Inspector who condemns Sophie comforts David more than his father does.

The growing claustrophobia felt by David and his telepathic friends is real and immediate. Despite their abilities, they are powerless in a world of rigid power structures, where governments and individuals take pride in the power of being a true Norm. This takes its toll on them, who would share in that power without truly meriting it by the standards of their own community. They are betrayed by one of their own (and Anne is to be pitied as much as Sophie and Harriet), tortured, killed, and their leader left behind in anonymity as they escape to Zealand, where the new species is growing. As the most ordinary of the Chrysalids, David is the pivotal figure. He is neither as powerful as his little sister Petra, as practical and competent as his lover Rosalind, or as intelligent as Michael. All David has comes from his genetic makeup – his psychic abilities, his growing realisation of difference, and his legacy from his father. David is everyman as he wishes he could be. He is us.

It is that identification, that ordinariness, which provides the subtlest and most horrifying part of the book. For when the escaping Chrysalids are rescued by the Zealand airship, the pursuing Norms are killed – and the Zealander shows no remorse. Her evolutionary rationale for the destruction of inferior species is shocking – especially as the reader is left with no alternative but to accept that the Norms are inferior, and that in the coming struggle – far into the future, to be sure – they should lose, whether they are neighbours or not. In effect, the Zealanders are really no different to the Norms – they aim to preserve their species above all else. Both sides have privileged power above ethics – with some justification. But is some enough? David, who is like us ordinary in his extraordinariness, may dislike the reasoning of his new friend and may think fondly of some of his former family, but he is on his way to a new family, a new community, and his place in it promises to be as secure as his father’s is within the old. In effect, he has escaped his father only to take his place.

Genetics will out, one way or another.

“Genesis” – Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett, Genesis, Dunedin: Longacre Press, 2006.

genesisTaking its cue from Plato’s Republic, and with more than a hint of George Orwell, Genesis outlines a world where society is split by genetic identity. In a future resulting from climate change, terrorism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the onset of World War Three, New Zealand has cut itself off from the rest of the world. In the resulting closed society, a leader called Plato sets out the rules for the new community, rules that will prevent the chaos of the outside world from destroying NZ as it has destroyed the outside world – at least, that is what the reader is led to think. It’s never made quite plain as to the state of life outside NZ – initially, refugees try to enter NZ waters and are blown up by the army. (Anyone familiar with the state of the NZ military today knows that we are now solidly in the realm of science fiction.) After a while, there are less and less attempts. Does this mean that the need grows less, or that the refugees do? This is never made clear, and is a clever way of increasing the claustrophobic tone of the book.

In the early days of the Republic, gene testing divides the population into four groups: labourers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. As can be expected, however, the odd individual arises who doesn’t fit into their assigned class as well as he or she might. One of the main characters, Adam Forde, is such an individual. Adam’s life is presented by a young student philosopher called Anaximander, who is preparing for entrance into the Academy: the highest echelon of academia, and the group with the responsibility of running the Republic – a Republic that has drastically changed since Adam’s day.

(And can I just say how extremely refreshing it is to find a recent SF novel that doesn’t cater so wholly to the five second attention span of the MTV generation? (Yes, get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!) By far the very great majority of this book takes place in two or three rooms, where two or several people simply talk to each other. It’s not trying to be Epic Science Fiction (and oh, how I’ve come to loathe that phrase. In fact, if I had every SF publishing house by the balls, I would ban, for a period of at least ten years, the publication of any SF book that could possibly be described as “epic”). It’s trying to be good science fiction. There’s a difference, and I’m lately coming to the conclusion that the two must be nearly mutually exclusive. My favourite SF literature has always resulted from the introduction of a specific technology or event into a society, and the resulting effect on people who are from the future but are in reality Just Like Us. It’s speculative fiction at its finest, uncluttered by the equivalent of summer blockbuster car chases and explosive set pieces. These are fine in their own way (when used sparingly and not as an alternative to actual plot) but are not a substitute for characterisation or actual story-telling.)

Genesis is structured around Anaximander’s oral presentation to her three examiners. The story of Adam’s life has reached legendary status in the centuries since his death, but Anaximander has a new interpretation of it, and him. Originally an extremely capable philosopher himself, Adam was demoted from the philosopher to the soldier class as a result of his inability to conform as expected to social and intellectual norms. It is not long before Adam disgraces himself in his new position as well, murdering fellow soldiers in order to avoid shooting a refugee girl.

Adam escapes the death penalty by being assigned to an experiment in identity: the philosopher William has created a new android, Art. Given that William’s previous efforts had ripped nearby children to shreds, it is decided that Art needs a more disposable test subject to interact with. In fact, by forced interaction with Art Adam is helping to programme the android, and to build its identity into a functioning individual. The science fiction staple of androids as living creatures is used effectively here, especially as Art avoids the by now too-common milquetoast innocence commonly given to androids in his situation. Art, in fact, is a nuisance brat with an annoyingly steep learning curve, and naturally this doesn’t help Adam, who is locked into his own mindset of seeing Art as a subhuman piece of machinery. Beckett manages the two perspectives (and their inherent chauvinisms, for Art is as pro-android as Adam is pro-human) well, although his sympathy initially seems to be with the android, who does tend to get the best lines:

‘Ugly’s still ugly, no matter how you see it.’

‘An interesting assertion. Justify it.’

‘You bring twenty people in here,’ Adam told him, ‘and they’ll all say the same thing. They’ll all say you’re ugly.’

‘Bring in twenty of me,’ Art spat back, ‘and we’d all say your arse is prettier than your face.’

‘There aren’t twenty of you.’

‘No, you’re right. I’m unique. So I can safely say that all androids find you ugly. Not all humans find me ugly. So technically, I’m better looking than you, using objective criteria.’

(Art isn’t your normal android. For one, he looks like an orang-utan. Why a roboticist should make an android in the shape of an orang-utan I’ve no earthly idea, unless it is to somehow reinforce its inferiority from a human-chauvinist point of view.)

But while Adam is fulfilling his role of extending Art’s programming, his input extends far beyond what anyone expects – especially Art. The secret of what happened in the final moments between the two, in their attempts to escape the testing facility, has, Anaximander believes, been lost. And when she finds that the Academy have not only still got the missing archive footage, but are actively keeping it from the public and philosophers both in a ruthless indoctrination programme of their own, her growing proximity to the secret, and how she eventually reacts to it, endangers far more than her standing in the academic community.

Examiner: You have become less careful in your answers.

Anaximander: I have.

Examiner: Are you sure that is wise?

Anaximander: I am sure it isn’t.

The realisation of the extent of the conspiracy within the Academy – a conspiracy that even involves Anaximander’s tutor Pericles, who has prepared her for the Academy examination for years – is pretty shocking. It was the twist I didn’t see coming (there’s another that most readers should get), and both involve identity: how it is formed, how it is kept… and how it is undermined. While it is true that the Republic of Anaximander’s day has reached almost utopian status, with the class divisions and civil unrest of Adam’s day long in the past, the price of maintaining that status has required the Academy to institute distinctly unsavoury measures. What price peace against the life and intellectual freedom of the individual? The totalitarian nature of the Republic has been based from the beginning on control over outside influences; firstly those from outside the borders of the country; and eventually those from within the minds of its citizens, influences in the form of ideas that spread throughout the population like a virus. Unsurprisingly, it is this viral, replicating influence that has the greatest effect. It’s also what dooms the main characters of Genesis – particularly Adam, Art, and Anaximander, but also the Academy in general – a fate that is arguably irrespective of who lives and dies.

“The Woman & the Ape” – Peter Høeg

Høeg, Peter. The Woman & the Ape. London: The Harvill Press, 1996.

hoegNo-one likes to be called an animal, yet animals are what we inescapably are. And from poor frightened stuffy old Bishop Wilberforce on there have always been people who think that being an ape is worse, somehow, than being any animal at all. Yet apes we are, and apes we remain. Walking down the street one can see the resemblance – in the turn of a jaw, in grasping manipulative hands, in the hairy back of the man who simply must wear a singlet. A newborn baby, a particularly clumsy walk, can illuminate as lightning.

The Woman & the Ape is full of such illumination. Høeg goes out of his way to underline the animal nature of his characters. The text is ripe with comparison and allusion, and provides some of the best imagery and character moments. For example, a young alcoholic wife, driven stir-crazy by the emptiness of her life:

Madelene looked at the window frame, the park and, beyond that, across the city. From conversations overheard in her childhood home she had retained a vague and repulsive impression of what conditions were like for domestic animals on factory farms. She knew the meaning of such terms as spontaneous fracture, tongue rolling, somatotropin, urine drinking, manger biting, neighbour pecking and monotonization of mating behaviour. Now, in these terms, she spied herself.

In truth it can’t be said that Høeg is particularly subtle about this – indeed the likenesses keep coming like a sledgehammer to the head – but it has a positive effect, and the continual reinforcement is likely intended. The saturation of simile and metaphor is relentless – not for one moment is the reader allowed to forget that before her is a cast of animals, a regular circus ring of them. The stage is set, and this ruthless undermining of our own puffed-up humanity – the humanity we perceive as somehow less animal in nature than the true animals – underlines the thread of masks and disguise that runs through the text. If, as a species, we can perceive ourselves as other than what we really are, how, as individuals, can we be expected to fare any better? Other masks, and more personal, inhabit our lives and define our identities.

While science fiction does rely heavily on the theme of conformity and identity, seldom do the masks created within the genre reach this level of reality. The masks on show in The Woman & the Ape are not just constructs meant to deceive the self and others, they are characters in their own right.

Each morning Madelene was resurrected. This resurrection occurred in front of her mirror and took between thirty and forty-five minutes. While it was underway, she was totally absorbed; during that space of time, with uncompromising thoroughness, she did the one thing she knew herself to be truly good at: she recreated the myth which said that Madelene looks gorgeous.

Høeg’s description of the making of his protagonist’s mask as “resurrection” underlies this point. The mask is a living thing, with its own wants, needs, and expectations. The under-Madelene, the creative personality behind the mask, is content enough to exist, stupefied into near oblivion, behind the mask that she so industriously and continuously maintains. The bored trophy wife of a rich man, transplanted from her native Denmark into the teeming jungle of London, Madelene’s mask, her self-created myth, exists in her place until she comes face to face with a new form of ape. Illegally imported by her husband Adam, the ape Erasmus is as intelligent and human as Madelene herself – at least Madelene on her better days, when her brain is not pickled with alcohol. Recognising a kindred spirit, Madelene rescues Erasmus from her husband’s experiments, and the two of them flee through London, ending up in St. Francis Forest, a “pornographic Garden of Eden” within the city walls. Paradise does not last, of course. It never does. Adam is on their trail, and Erasmus is not the only ape around… and he and his kind are getting just a bit fed up with humanity.

Slowly Madelene finds that the self she had constructed, the self that she resurrects every day, is insufficient for this new life. Its use as a tool is too limited. Adequate for her previous life, its careful incompetence, cultivated expectations, and determined conformity is wholly unsuited for the present.

To begin with she persuaded herself – half in anger, half in panic – that the animal was retarded or at any rate that its language skills were at too low a level for it to understand all the cunning little ways in which human lovers are forever reassuring one another…. after a day or two it dawned on her that this was not because Erasmus could not. It was just that it never occurred to him. And what was more she did not want it either.

Madelene can no longer hide behind a facade of irresponsibility, any more than Adam can maintain a gentleman’s exterior to the public and simultaneously engage in smuggling and illegal experiments within the shady underbelly of London’s zoological community. New masks, new identities, are required for her to navigate through this new world. Yet this relatively straightforward uncovering of character within a protagonist is not terribly surprising in any book, any genre. What makes this theme stand out so here is not the uncovering itself, but the thoroughness of the masks presented, their ubiquity throughout the text, and the horrible fact that even these new, superior apes – so much more admirable than Homo sapiens sapiens! – are working with masks of their own. Erasmus may be attractive for his emotional honesty – such a contrast to Madelene’s training in the bribery of love – but his people are not so different from ours.

It’s possible that the true sting in the tale of this evolutionary fable is not the abandonment of humanity by Erasmus and his kin. In one form or another, this leave-taking is a relatively common science fiction trope. However, the frantic response of the public to the unmasking – the sheer emotionalism of it – is further proof that the masks of The Woman & the Ape are characters in their own right.

When the vice-president of the Royal Zoological Society unmasks herself, “out of the auditorium came a scream, heart-rending, imploring. It came from her husband.” Seven million Londoners are thrown into panic:

They could not be certain of the identity of their bosses, or their friends. They eyed one another fearfully, tried to remember how their children and their spouses looked naked, wondered when exactly they had first met their wives, frantically they wondered whether she might be an ape, or the daughter of an ape.

This reaction can be partially ascribed to the social stigma of having an ape in the family, of course (Wilberforce is never truly gone!), but this misses the wider implication. The unmasking is a betrayal, an abandonment. Entire relationships are shown to be founded on a lie; deceptions from the beginning. The husband of the RZS vice-president has been used and thrown over, his emotions vivisected as thoroughly as Erasmus would have been vivisected biologically. The boundaries between the natural and the unnatural, between love and duty, between human and ape, have again been blurred.

In the end, we are all responsible for our masks. They take a deal of construction, a continual resurrection. If we are careful, and clever, the masks we show to the world are indistinguishable from a true face. And if others believe that mask to be real, are we not responsible for them falling into the lie that we have so carefully and cleverly created? The grieving husband loved something that did not exist – but he loved.

Can one say the same for his wife? And on their separate islands, separated by space and species, what faces will these two see when they look in the mirror?

Who knows. But as apes ourselves, we know what it is like to look into a mirror and see the masks that we’ve made… masks that are more real to us than our true natures.

Unaccountably (to me at least) The Woman & the Ape was not positively received by critics, who may have been expecting something more along the lines of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Høeg’s extremely eclectic style, changing from book to book, is a warning against any such assumption. Personally, despite that reception, I can only say that after The Woman and the Ape, I am sure that, decades in the future, if Høeg keeps writing and doesn’t get hit by a bus, the Nobel Prize for Literature is coming his way.

You heard it here first.

“Under the Mountain” – Maurice Gee

Gee, Maurice. Under the Mountain. Auckland: Puffin Books, 2006.

First published 1979.

geeUnder the Mountain has had the dubious pleasure of horrifying me twice in one lifetime. As a child, I was scared silly by the thought of the Wilberforces and what it would take to defeat them. As an adult, the horror was different – several weeks back, I went to the cinema to see the newly-released movie version and it was dreadful. The characters had the same names, and that was about all that could be said for it. Everything that contributed to the charm and thoughtfulness and grief of the original had been systematically stripped away. I was so horrified I went out and bought a copy of the book, to reread and reassure myself that the original was as I remembered it.

It was.

Under the Mountain is the story of Rachel and Theo, twin children who are almost complete opposites. Rachel is a dreamer, Theo a scientist. She feels, he thinks. On a visit to their family in Auckland, they learn that they are in the middle of the last battle between the last representatives of two great alien races – and that they are the key to defeating the side that wants to destroy all life on Earth and turn it into a planet of mud. The rapacious slugs of the  Wilberforce family, and the good but frail Mr. Jones can both take human form – Mr. Jones at least is more comfortable that way as it makes him feel less lonely. Loneliness is one of the subtle over-arching themes of the book, as Rachel and Theo must in their own way learn to use weapons that will destroy the invaders. Though children, they must become killers – not just of individuals, but of an entire race – if they want their home to survive. Yet killing, even in self-defence, is never an easy thing. There is no help, and no hope. It is murder or nothing.

The bleak attraction of Under the Mountain is in its unflinching treatment of this problem. Mediocre science fiction – especially the early attempts – has always the faceless enemy alien that must be slaughtered for humanity to survive. It is the science fiction of persecution rather than personality, with little ethical content. Slow changes have seen this enemy change, become humanised, take on characteristics that humanity can empathise with. This leads to greater interaction between the two species – the possibility of communication or detente exists, and this possibility introduces a whole new different set of stakes. Under the Mountain lies somewhere between these two.

Mr. Jones is implacable in his purpose. Killing the Wilberforces is the only option, their species must be exterminated from the cosmos for others to survive. No other tactic will work – certainly not negotiation. “You might just as well try talking to a school of sharks” (p 85). They are intelligent, lethal, and amoral. The amorality is key – the Wilberforces have no better nature to appeal to, no pity and no kindness. Yet neither do they appear to have any malice. They kill out of instinct, living up to their name: “the People who conquer and multiply”. They don’t kill for pleasure or for vengeance, and neither do they kill unnecessarily. When a Wilberforce attacks Rachel and Theo, it feels no need to kill them both: “Come with me. Come to the lake. One will be enough” (p 102). It is the same with Johan and Lenart – the Wilberforces need kill only one to ensure their own survival. They are not excessive or malicious or vengeful. And when Rachel has completed her part in defeating them, her part in what is essentially genocide, she is perfectly safe from them – there is now no reason to attack her, so they don’t. Another species would kill in both cases simply because it could. We are forced to consider that that other species might well be human.

This is not to say that Under the Mountain presents genocide as an unthinkably evil possibility. When the question is kill or be killed, there is really only one realistic answer. Yet genocide in the name of survival is still genocide, and genocide committed, knowingly and willingly, by children…? Rachel at least is made unhappy by it: “She was troubled too by the thought that she was going to kill. The Wilberforces were the last of their kind. It was a crime” (p 125). Although she does not flinch from it, her part in what she considers to be criminal is not a moment of personal triumph.

Rachel’s voice rose into the night, clear, thin, careful, the sort of voice she might use for recitation. But to Theo it contained a note of grief. ‘Go down, People of the Mud’ (p 134).

Theo’s reaction is less moral, but then he is the head instead of the heart of the pairing, and he is frustrated by the Jonesian poetry of his ritualistic response.

‘We bring you the gift of…’ he cried. And the final word was nearly lost. Why didn’t they say death when they meant it? ‘…oblivion’ (p 155).

He is less troubled than his sister by their actions, but equally cognisant of them. It is a crime – the lesser of two evils, but still a fundamentally evil act.

One can almost describe Under the Mountain as an allegory of the make-up of human nature – the dreamer and the thinker, the desire to slaughter, to survive, to preserve, wrapped in a package stamped with the postmark of twentieth century technology. Fittingly, there is no great demarcation line between the three races – Gee is too subtle for that, and it is in the death of the last remaining Wilberforces that the three races – human, Jones, and Wilberforce – become more obviously one. The two long combatants, the final examples of their race, die together after dragging a third race into the same moral culpability: those that were willing to commit genocide have become victims of it themselves. It is at the end that the Wilberforces finally show some small spark of recognisable emotion. Knowing they are about to die, they gather together in a family:

The baby Wilberforces slid across the parking lot. They stopped beside Theo a moment almost as if to keep him company. Then they went down. … the Wilberforces gave a haunting cry like the distant fading call of trumpets. They turned away from the stone and gathered a little way off in a circle (p 157).

Is this too mere instinct? Or is it the first spark of feeling, the mark of a race that could one day be negotiated with if only they had survived? Wilberforces might have all the feelings of sharks, yet white pointers are still protected – even smallpox is not entirely eradicated. Had that spark been there all along, beyond the reach of the Jones’? Had the trauma of war robbed ‘the People who understand’ of their understanding?

It is often said that in war there is no real winner, and such is the case in Under the Mountain. Rachel and Theo win the war, but in killing the Wilberforce family they lose their own – their process has been flawed, and their cousin, uncle and aunt are all killed because of it. With the death of the Wilberforces and the Jones, “the People of the mud, who conquer and multiply” and “the People who understand” it becomes inescapably evident that what is left – the humans – are a bastardised mixture of both. As a race, whether poets or scientists we understand what we do, and are capable of better and more moral decisions, and yet a soaring population growth that slaughters other species is one of our most characteristic calling cards. Rachel is not that far removed from Mr. Wilberforce, and Theo not that different from Mr. Jones. They are as capable – and as culpable.

Gee has always been a careful writer. His books for adults are contemporary, non-genre character studies, where much is implied in few words. He is possibly one of the most observant writers that I have come across, but his childrens’ books are less obviously so. They are still terse, still concise. The fantasy and science fiction universes he works in are, in their own way, equally restrained and observant, and Under the Mountain is the pinnacle of this approach. I haven’t seen a single exclamation mark in the entire book, although the subject matter, in the hands of another author, would certainly call for them. The word “genocide” is never mentioned, and yet that is the fate of two of the three involved races; the long defeat of better selves. Instead a clean quiet prose, a drama entirely devoid of melodrama; a triumph underpinned by grief not for what has happened but for what was done. This makes it a real rarity in science fiction for children – but I wonder how many children pick up on it. Given the sad excuse for a movie adaptation previously mentioned, it certainly went over the heads of some of the adults.

“The Fat Man in History and Other Stories” – Peter Carey

Carey, Peter. The Fat Man in History and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1980.

careyThe stories in this collection are linked as part of a near-future, after an unspecified revolution in which the social and political world has changed. While most can be said to be speculative fiction, two stories in particular are definitely science fiction: “The Chance” and “Exotic Pleasures”.

The Fat Man’s inside jacket compares Carey with the painter René Magritte, whose surrealist paintings challenged the observer perception of the normal. It’s an apt comparison as far as it goes, but I think there is a better one. If Carey resembles Magritte in the image of his world, he reminds me inescapably of John Wyndham in his peopling of it.

It’s always difficult to assess a collection of anything as opposed to a single unit, but in its sparsely defined environment The Fat Man does have an overriding style which links the stories together. (It is likely what suggested the link with Magritte to the publishers.) This narrative choice is the focus on character relationships as a macrocosm of the wider environment, as opposed to relationships as an addition to it. I say “macrocosm” as it is, I think, more accurate to describe the wider events as reflections of the characters than it is to describe those characters as reflections of the new social and environmental landscape. And because the focus on character is so close, so glaring, the outer world has fallen a little out of focus.

Paul and Carla are not lumped in to give a romantic interest to a storyline focusing on the possibility of genetic change – they are the result of that possibility being an accepted part of society. Lilly and Mort are not scientists dealing with the threat of environmental devastation, the result of lax quarantine laws in the age of space travel – they could not really care any less, and the real damage of the story is the damage to their relationship and not the planet’s ecology. In many ways Carey has an approach to story that is very much reminiscent of Wyndham, he who was famously described by Brian Aldiss as being the purveyor of the “cosy catastrophe”.

In Carey’s own cosy catastrophes, his own domestic dramas, the setting of the new world of the future is illustrated in brief brushstrokes on the edge of the canvas. In “The Fat Man in History” Alexander Finch may internally rail against the new political order, he and his fellow housemates may fantasise about exploding down the 16 October Statue, but on his own Finch is at best capable of stealing a pair of double blue sheets, blue because “it is cooler than white, and because it doesn’t show the dirt so badly” (14). His goals and perspective have become so limited that he is reduced to a sort of grubby domesticity, a dream of consumption that becomes reality in the only environment in which Finch has any influence left. The soldier guarding a line in the desert in “A Windmill in the West” has become so detached from political reality, so confused in his own hot brain (not so very different from the lonely baking caravan he is housed in) that he know longer knows which side of the line is “his” side, and which belongs to the Australians. And when people and things begin to dematerialise in “Do You Love Me?,” that question, and the frequency of the answer “No”, is the force that pushes people apart, not the disappearances themselves.

It’s a clever tactic, in that the confusion and displacement of the characters is reflected in the reader – no setting is ever fully delineated, and the environment is continually almost recognisable. Like the characters, we realise that however pretty it looks, something is off. Like Lilly’s smuggled bird in “Exotic Pleasures”, the apparently harmless is intrinsically harmful – especially to the characters. Having set a scene of unease, Carey – like Wyndham – creates a cast of domesticated, highly relatable people struggling with normal problems. They are not heroes; certainly not the heroes that are the staple of the science fiction genre. These are the people the heroes leave behind, the dreary banality of people who desire to be other than they are and who are mortally afraid of their capacity both to change and to be stagnant. Lilly and Mort, a young and loving couple progressively driven apart by redundancy and the intrusion of the alien, are painfully recognisable in their development. They begin the story almost penniless, jobless in a nation of desperate unemployment. The strain wears on them both, for Lilly is pregnant and Mort cannot find work.

…she knew, before he arrived at the car, exactly what his eyes would look like. She had seen those eyes more and more recently, like doors to comfortable and familiar rooms that suddenly open to reveal lift wells full of broken cables. (114)

Yet when Lilly impulsively buys a strange extraterrestrial bird, one that gives pleasure and encourages addiction to its presence, the focus of the story does not change (except in fragments) to a wider view, but remains tightened on a relationship that is under progressively more and more strain. The catastrophe is not averted by their ability to make a living, but is underlined by the new roles in their relationship.

At the markets he did less and less and now it was Lilly who not only attracted the crowds but also took the money and kept time. He felt useless and hopeless, angry at himself that he was too stiff and unbending to do the things that he should to earn a living, resentful that his wife could do it all without appearing to try, angry that she should accept his withdrawal so readily… (126)

As a mix of speculative and science fiction, there are two things that really made this collection stand out for me. The first is what I consider to be the purity of its approach to genre. I have always considered the best of science fiction to be that which introduces a new element into society, and explores the consequences on ordinary people. Science fiction as such is a democratic genre, the genre of the people, unlike fantasy literature which so often focuses on the epic and the elite – although that tendency has spread into science fiction far too often for my liking. The Fat Man brings the camera in close again, to the quiet desperation of ordinary people in a world they are never expected to understand, a world in which they lack the capacity to operate effectively.

The secondary strength is in the women of the piece. Again, Carey is similar to Wyndham here – both produce female characters that feel far more real to me than is the norm in the genre, where the tendency remains to either “fantasise” women, to turn them into the Other, or to produce a plasticine heroine. (It’s no coincidence that the books reviewed in this blog have women I can relate to rather than women I roll my eyes at.) Carey’s women are as intensely drawn as the men – as paranoid and as pitiful and as rich.

The best example is Carla, who in “The Chance” wishes to trade her young beautiful body in a genetic lottery, for what she believes to be a “better” form – lumpen, misshapen and ugly. The political reasons behind the movement in which Carla is a member are briefly touched upon – a hatred for privileged self in comparison to a romanticised vision of the proletariat, and a desire to wallow in that vision taken to grotesque lengths. Carla’s lover Paul, himself no oil painting, cannot understand their desire: “Your friends haven’t become working class. They have a manner. They look disgusting …. They look like rich fops amusing themselves.” (73)

Carla’s delusion that their relationship could continue after her Chance is painfully inaccurate, and Paul’s attempts to stop her are fruitless. After her change she comes to him in the middle of the night, waits by his sleeping bed. Paul likes to think to himself that “I am better than that. It was the wrong time. Undrugged, ungrogged, I would have done better” (86) but he knows that he is lying to himself, and pretends not to wake, pretends not to see her new self. Carla is not fooled.

In the full light of morning she was gone and had, with bitter reproach, left behind merely one thing: a pair of her large grey knickers, wet with the juices of her unacceptable desire. I placed them in the rubbish bin and went out to buy some more beer. (87)

There’s no happy ending in these stories, but no particularly sad ending either. There is just an ending, perhaps dimly melancholic but that is all. And amongst the common people, perhaps that is all one can reasonably expect. There are no heroes here, after all, and no anti-heroes either. They do not achieve miracles, do not define themselves more clearly against the suffocating pressure of a wider picture. That remains as blurred, as slightly surrealist, as it began.